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News / Clark County News

Dog parks in danger in Clark County

Nonprofit DOGPAW says conflict, problems could close county's off-leash dog parks

By Jake Thomas, Columbian political reporter
Published: July 12, 2018, 6:00am
5 Photos
Off-leash dog parks, including Dakota Memorial Dog Park, can be serene places for our furry friends to just be dogs, but when crowded, they can be hotbeds for conflict.
Off-leash dog parks, including Dakota Memorial Dog Park, can be serene places for our furry friends to just be dogs, but when crowded, they can be hotbeds for conflict. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

On a weekday morning at Dakota Memorial Dog Park, Diesel, a Jack Russell terrier, eagerly leapt at a tennis ball held by his owner, Cindy Rotermund.

Rotermund, a retiree who recently moved to the area, said she regularly comes to the off-leash dog park with Diesel and Newton, her pointer. She said it’s good for her pets to be off leash so they can run around, play with and sniff other canines — just be dogs.

But Rotermund said she actively avoids coming to the park on the weekends, when she’s heard there can be up to 100 dogs in the 8-acre park.

“Maybe the dogs would like it,” Rotermund said. “But not me.”

As Clark County’s population continues to grow, newcomers are bringing their dogs with them and putting new strains on the county’s off-leash dog parks. Now, the parks, which have periodically faced closures and financial challenges, could all close.

The parks are maintained by local nonprofit DOGPAW, which stands for Dog Owners Group for Park Access in Washington. Mark Watson, the group’s board president, said DOGPAW has turned to the county for help in managing the increasingly packed parks that he said are becoming rife with conflict and dangerous situations.

“By Sept. 1, if we cannot come to some form of agreement with this, we will pull up stakes,” Watson said.

That will mean all of the fencing around the parks will be pulled up, he said. The group’s board will also begin looking at setting up a new park that only members with a key card can access, a scenario Watson described as a “travesty.”

Unmanageable

DOGPAW maintains the county’s four off-leash dog parks, two of which are within county parks, using funds from donations and sponsorships and no public money, Watson said.

The parks’ rules require dogs using them to be licensed with the county and be on leash in parking lots. He said aggressive dogs need to be removed by their owners under the rules, which discourage bringing in small children.

In June, Watson sent a letter to Bill Bjerke, county parks manager, stating that the pressure of population growth and last year’s closure of Stevenson Off Leash Dog Park in Washougal has “led to a significant increase in use, resulting in a rise of violations to park rules and conflict in the parks that has unfortunately become unmanageable.”

The letter, obtained through a public records request, states that an average of 8,800 people and dogs visit the parks during the week and 3,800 on weekends. It states that people are bringing aggressive dogs or dogs that aren’t neutered into the park, or are leaving their dogs unleashed in parking lots.

There also has been a rise in conflicts, with five dogs killed at Dakota Memorial Dog Park in the last year, the letter states.

Earlier this spring, a dog bit and mauled another dog so severely it died. The aggressive dog’s owner took no responsibility and showed no remorse, according to the letter. The letter also describes an incident involving a large dog that’s been subject to multiple complaints biting the owner of a smaller dog who was trying to break up a fight.

Watson wrote that people are increasingly bringing small children to the off-leash parks, and it is “only a matter of time before a serious injury occurs.”

“As a nonprofit organization, DOGPAW is no longer willing to be exposed to such a high level of liability and legal jeopardy due to the lack of enforcement of park rules,” the letter reads.

The letter asks the county to consider providing at least 40 hours a week of patrol by a county parks or animal control officer to secure the parks and issue citations as needed.

But Watson said that he’s become less optimistic about the situation since sending the letter.

In June, Clark County Community Development Director Mitch Nickolds fired three of the county’s five animal control officers over a gathering during the work day where alcohol was consumed. Paul Scarpelli, who had been fired as animal control manager in May, had long complained that the service was already understaffed.

The county has indicated that it plans to restore services by August. But Watson said it will take time to train new officers and expects the county will restaff the service by 2019 at best.

Only about 30 percent of dog owners in Clark County have paid the $25 fee to get their pet licensed. According to DOGPAW, there are 130,000 dogs in Clark County. Watson said that if an officer patrolled the parks and made sure that dogs are licensed, it could significantly generate revenue for animal control.

“Our concern is that now the public is saying, ‘If there is no animal control, why do we need to license our dogs?’ ” he said.

In July, Nickolds emailed Watson stating that he was drafting a “more comprehensive approach” that will “ensure very robust dog licensing and animal control enforcement is maintained and provided, both in dog parks and in public.”

Nickolds told The Columbian that he’s working out a plan to hire a new animal control officer who would focus on dog licensing. He said the officer would be a presence in off-leash parks issuing provisional licenses to people, in hopes they’ll pay for a full license. The county is actively recruiting for new animal control officers, he said, and is still looking at a mid or late-August time frame to make hires.

Nickolds said the department will have to work within the county’s budget, and he wasn’t sure that the officer could devote a full 40 hours to patrolling just dog parks spread out across the county. But he said the officer’s presence would make a difference by helping the public better understand the parks’ rules and how to license their dogs.

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“The position, in that capacity, becomes less necessary because there is a common understanding,” he said.

Worst-case scenario

Back at Dakota Memorial Dog Park, Serena Meyer calls to Pamuk, her Anatolian shepherd. Meyer, a Hazel Dell resident, said that she sometimes has to lead Pamuk away from a potentially dicey situation with other dogs at the off-leash parks. But overall, she said the parks are great, and provide dogs with opportunities to socialize and are less costly than doggy day cares.

“I feel like it makes her a better dog,” she said.

Watson said that if DOGPAW had to set up a member-based off-leash park, it would give his organization more control over the situation, but it’s still a scenario he hopes to avoid.

If DOGPAW closes the public off-leash parks, he said people would take their dogs to school and church yards or regional parks for exercise. He said they might just return to the old sites of the off-leash parks, which wouldn’t have fencing.

“They will be running amok,” he said. “It will be even worse.”

Watson said it costs the organization about $110,000 annually for upkeep, which includes repairing 25,000 feet of fencing, mowing over 30 acres, maintaining 5 miles of trail and removing 7 tons of pet waste.

Last year, DOGPAW signaled that it would have to shut down without more funding. Watson said that the organization rallied and raised enough money to stay open. While the organization overcame last year’s crisis, he pointed out that this new one is different.

“We are dealing with the public,” he said before pausing. “The public is challenging.”

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Columbian political reporter